Mega storm Sandy and hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma caused power disruption across vast areas of North America. As a result, the communities they hit suffered wide-spread and prolonged power outages that created further chaos and made the challenge of rebuilding even more difficult. In searching for a way to keep the lights on after major weather events such as these, microgrid systems have emerged. 

Currently, electricity supply is provided by a centralised system, operated by major energy and utility companies. It consists of a main grid, where energy is produced at large power stations, which then distributes the power to end-use consumers through a wide transmission network.

Microgrids revolutionise this model by drawing power from a multitude of local sources that can then be sent through a network of local users. In addition, as opposed to relying on one source of energy, a microgrid can collect energy from several supply sources such as solar power, wind or from a traditional generator, integrating this energy into a network. Consequently, the microgrid system allows anyone to contribute to power generation. Consumers can sell surplus energy back to the microgrid, on a pay-per-use basis. As a result, this system empowers users to generate their own power supplies and removes reliance on a central grid, allowing the microgrid to operate autonomously. Their ability to 'island' when the wider power grid goes down means that after a major weather event, or following the destruction of a central power supply, the community can still generate power.

Access to power can be the difference between life and death. For example, Texas Utilities estimates that more than 300,000 customers were without power following Hurricane Harvey. Yet, thanks to the Texas-based microgrid company Enchanted Rock, the microgrids installed on the sites of Houston Grocery Stores meant that the stores could remain open to provide food and supplies, despite blackouts on the wider electricity grid. 

Generating power locally means that microgrids also provide significant potential for powering less developed regions where providing a central power supply to remote areas remains a challenge. 

According to a report by Raconteur, around 1.1 billion people globally have no access to electricity, with 95 per cent in rural locations in sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries in Asia. The United Nations has set an ambitious sustainable development goal to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030 and microgrids could provide the answer to this challenge. 

For instance, it is the microgrid system that is electrifying remote villages in Kenya. For example, the solar-storage based microgrid ‘Powerhive’, the first privately owned company in Kenya to obtain a license to operate a power utility, built and operates 20 rural microgrids that serve 20,000 people. Chris Hornor, founder and CEO of Powerhive explains their model: “Our microgrids enable us to generate a lot more solar energy than traditional models, and distribute that energy more efficiently, sharing it across many more customers.” 

The capacity of global microgrids is expected to grow from 1.4 gigawatts (GW) in 2015 to 7.6GW in 2024, according to Navigant Research. “Microgrids democratise electricity delivery. The shift from waiting for energy to flow, to active generation and consumption of energy is important. In this way, a microgrid will not remove poverty, but is a powerful tool,” explains Harish Hande, chief executive at the India-based not-for-profit SELCO Foundation, a leader in decentralised energy that launched a model that has reached more than half a million end-users to date. 

However, despite the potential of the microgrid system, there remain some major challenges. The key issue is that the microgrid sector is still in its infancy. Whilst there are demo projects, such as the one run by industrial manufacturer Siemens', which uses distributed renewable energy assets such as solar PV and biogas plants, they are yet to become the mainstream answer to centralised power system outages. 

In addition, whilst the technology may be growing, the industry still lacks adequate regulatory frameworks. Existing regulations pre-date the evolution of decentralised power generation and they are not designed to facilitate microgrids. Often, this prevents microgrids from being developed – despite their potential to generate power for communities that are badly in need of a solution. It is likely that electricity grid regulations will evolve as the benefits of microgrids become better understood and more data emerges to demonstrate their value, but this could take decades. However, if the microgrid solution is supported, it could redefine the energy sector. Our ability to answer the UN’s goal of generating affordable and clean energy for every community, could become a reality. 

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